What is news?

In its latest edition The Economist has published a series of reports on “the future of news.”  The substance of the report deserves separate treatment in this blog:  suffice to say, here, that it contains much that is interesting, much that is questionable, and some bits that are self-serving.  The Economist, after all, isn’t exactly a disinterested observer.  It’s a news magazine.

But what strikes a careful reader is The Economist’s failure to address a fundamental question:  what is the product sold by newspapers and news magazines?  What makes news a distinctive and marketable – let alone important – type of information?

Let’s try to find the answer from a variety of perspectives.

We can dispense with trivial definitions:  news isn’t everything that’s new.  The amount of new information generated each moment is infinite, while the amount customarily labeled news is exceedingly small and repetitive.  News results from a process of rejection which weeds out the vast majority of the new.

Following Wikipedia and Webster’s, we might posit a relationship between news and “events.”  On this account, news can be understood as new information on developments in places like Washington DC and Cairo, Egypt.  This appears to correlate, superficially, with the stuff in newspapers and newscasts, but begs a number of basic questions.  Which events qualify as news?  The answer might be:  those of a certain magnitude, important for the public to learn about.  But, again, who decides what’s important for the public?

This is not a rhetorical question.

Fairfax County, where I live, has the largest population of any political unit in the Washington metropolitan area.  It holds musical and theatrical events, conducts vast engineering projects, suffers traffic congestion, debates the proper level of funding for public schools:  all of immediate interest to me.  Yet I would guess that the Washington Post, my local newspaper, produces a hundred articles on President Obama for each that deigns to look across the Potomac at Fairfax.  For the Post, Fairfax County is most emphatically not important.  Conversely, for the Fairfax public – people like me – President Obama is, at best, of indirect importance.

News consists of those events – never more than a handful – communicated to the public by people in the news business:  publishers, editors, journalists, broadcasters, etc.  This may be a bit of circular logic, but it invites a couple of interesting observations.  One concerns the remarkable invisibility of the news business.  If news is important information, and news people alone decide what this means, then they are important – yet they rarely appear in the news.  (When they do, it’s invariably bad news.)  For reasons they can best explain, news people tend to leave news people alone.

The journalistic style also bleaches out the person from the information.  News people never explain their choices, for example.  A reporter will never say, “I find covering the White House a lot more exciting and important than the funding problems of the Fairfax school district.”  Rather, he will present information in the same way the Pope issues Catholic doctrine:  from authority, unburdened by the need to explain himself.

This leads to a second observation, touching on the qualifications of news people to deal with the subjects they choose.  Part of the modern condition is a reliance on specialists.  A doctor, for example, will spend many years learning his profession, yet will speak from authority only about his narrow field:  oncology, dermatology, radiology, etc.  If a dermatologist spoke authoritatively about heart disease, the patient would worry.  If a dermatologist tried to speak authoritatively about the strategic picture in Afghanistan or the economic consequences of a Greek default, he would likely be dismissed as a crank.  Yet news people, who speak about such subjects from authority, appear no better trained to do so than a dermatologist or any other interested amateur.

According to the website of Columbia’s famed Journalism School, the graduate program there “stresses academic rigor, ethics, journalistic inquiry and professional practice.”  We may assume that students who complete the program become honorable academics, inquirers, and practitioners, but it is hard to see how this qualifies them to speak from authority about war in exotic places or the health of the world’s financial system.

News people aren’t arbitrary in their choice of material for news, but neither are they methodical.  The phrase “a nose for news” is thus a boast and a confession.  In fact, economic and psychological pressures constrain the choice of what is news.  The economic reality is ferocious competition:  a need to be fast, to be first, to grab and keep the attention of an indifferent public.  The one-day, 500-point stock market drop in October 1987 was huge news, despite a lack of consequences:  the event contained the attention-getting drama of a terrible disaster.  The slow erosion of our financial system in the late 2000’s was not news at all, even though it has had a significant impact:  until Lehman Brothers collapsed in the fall of 2008, this didn’t register as an event, much less as drama.

“The point,” wrote Walter Lippmann back in 1922, “is that before a series of events become news they usually have to make themselves noticeable in a more or less overt act.  Generally, too, in a crudely overt act.”  He went on:

Something definite must occur that has unmistakable form. It may be the act of going into bankruptcy, it may be a fire, a collision, an assault, a riot, an arrest, a denunciation, the introduction of a bill, a speech, a vote, a meeting, the expressed opinion of a well known citizen, an editorial in a newspaper, a sale, a wage-schedule, a price change, the proposal to build a bridge…. There must be a manifestation.

In the hands of journalists, such overt acts were communicated by means of “stereotypes” – a word Lippmann coined in its present usage.  For Lippmann, stereotyping wasn’t a function of prejudice or simple-mindedness, but of the competitive need for speed and attention.  Nonetheless, it remains a great barrier keeping information from the public sphere.  We should not look in the news for sophisticated Africans, humorous Muslims, or reasonable gun advocates.

Stereotyping, Lippmann observed, is commonly perpetrated at the place “where people’s affairs touch public authority.”  I would put it in stronger terms:  news people imagine they can speak with authority because they hobnob with those in authority.  They care little – and communicate less – about science, technology, or the arts, but they love power and fame.  Politics, reduced to the acts, words, and opinions of a handful of powerful people, consume the news only slightly more than sports and Hollywood.

Love of power and fame fills the void left by lack of method and specialized knowledge.  In truth, hardly any news is chosen by news people.  Even the stereotypes are borrowed from a few individuals at the top of the social pyramid.  This isn’t a question of conspiracies, at least not in the usual sense.  It’s a problem of identity.  News people travel with the President, attend exclusive events, cross police barriers with impunity, dine with beautiful people in glamorous settings.  They would have to be superhuman not to feel pressure to adopt the perspective of the subjects they cover and conclude, “Important events are what important people say they are.”

Journalists claim to mediate between the public and power, informing one, holding the other accountable.  But the psychological rewards of their profession all lead away from the public – a monstrous abstraction – toward the famous faces and places of power.  The Economist offers a good example of the consequences.  It addresses the reader from on high, with the voice of God.  Not only is the public never consulted about the choice of subjects:  the very idea of consultation is heretical.

Ask news people about the purpose of their work and an honest reply would be, “To rouse the public from its provincial slumber.”  My fixation with Fairfax County is precisely the malady news aims to cure.

Once we sweep away the self-serving cant of the news business, a different perspective emerges on our question.  People have always relied on trusted intermediaries to obtain the information necessary to get on with life.  Such information has two salient features.  First, it is based on personal need, and the need varies with the person.  A political man will find important a somewhat different set of subjects than a scholar of Renaissance art; their sources of information will differ accordingly.  Second, a relationship of trust, based on character and reputation, must exist between the provider and the receiver of information.  Any suspicion of manipulation, ignorance, or deceit will undermine reputation and destroy the relationship.

News, on this account, appears to be defined less by content or timeliness than by a combination of usefulness and trust.

If this is the case, interest in crudely overt events becomes a matter of personal taste, not a democratic duty.  The news business becomes an ordinary business, not a watchdog or an estate.  It produces stuff for sale, some small part of which is news – that information, and that only, which is useful to someone and is received with trust.  Here, with the triumph of human relationship over institutional authority, we enter a subject beyond scope of the present question:  the decline in the reputation of the news business, symbolized, it may be, by the trajectory from Walter Cronkite to Katie Couric.

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